Oscar oddsmakers suggest that any of three films – Gravity, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave – might take home this year’s best picture prize during the Academy Awards ceremony on 2 March. But 12 Years a Slave, a wrenching account of the life of Solomon Northup, is something else: one of the only films ever to treat the horror of American slavery with the seriousness it deserves and a major achievement for its British director, Steve McQueen.

The film represents a profound step forward for McQueen, whose first two feature films – Hunger (2008), a historical drama about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and Shame (2011), a story of a sex addict in contemporary New York – showed promise. Yet McQueen isn’t only, or even primarily, a filmmaker.

McQueen is an artist – one of the most important artists to come out of Britain in the last 25 years, in fact – and film critics’ considerations of 12 Years a Slave have felt, to this art critic at least, woefully incomplete. Some writers have paid a soft tribute to McQueen’s art, singling out the movie’s uncommonly long takes and unconventional camera angles as “arty” elements in an otherwise traditional film. Worse has been the suggestion that McQueen’s art was merely a preamble or a training ground, as if movies were more important than other visual art by definition.

On the contrary, 12 Years a Slave is a continuation of, rather than a break from, McQueen’s artistic practice. In its dispassionate and detached style, its political and historical concerns, and its depictions of bodies in extreme states, the film is every bit a work of art, and an understanding of McQueen’s earlier work can help to reveal the scale of its achievement.

Silent fury

McQueen was born in 1969 and studied at Goldsmiths, the University of London art school that in the ‘90s became a hothouse for artistic experimentation. (Fellow graduates include video artist Mark Wallinger, photographer Gillian Wearing, sculptor Antony Gormley and endless provocateur Damien Hirst – all of whom, like McQueen, went on to win the Turner Prize.) While still at Goldsmiths, McQueen made one of the most powerful student works I’ve ever seen. Bear (1993), now in the collection of the Tate, consists of a looped film of two large, naked black men, one of whom is McQueen, engaged in a strange and seemingly ritualised wrestling match. At times they go at each other ferociously; at others, their tussling feels gentler and even romantic, and McQueen even allows a complicit smile at the camera at one point. (There is something of Bear in 12 Years a Slave, when Michael Fassbender chases Chiwetel Ejiofor around a pigsty in a sequence that’s both repulsive and deviously playful.) McQueen projected the black-and-white silent film on a screen that stretches to the ceiling, and the floor was highly polished to reflect the image and incorporate the viewer in the display. Whatever uncomfortable questions Bear was raising, one thing was certain: McQueen did not go for easy answers, and did not let spectators shy away.

Silent film served as the medium for another of McQueen’s major early works: Deadpan (1997), a compulsive, mesmerising four-minute masterpiece that helped earn him the Turner Prize in 1999. Deadpan remakes a famous gag from Buster Keaton’s ‘20s films One Week and Steamboat Bill Jr, in which the façade of a house falls on the standing comedian and he survives by passing through a strategically placed window. McQueen replicates that stunt on a soundstage, standing stock-still, even after the façade crashes down around him. The artist projects the stunt from multiple angles – close-up on his face, above his head, from the side, from below – and in one establishing shot we see that the boots of his shoes have no laces, like a mental patient on suicide watch.

Personal and political

McQueen made impressive use of silence in his video artworks of the 1990s, so it was a surprise for visitors to the 2002 edition of Documenta, the once-every-five-years German show considered the art world’s most prestigious exhibition, to encounter a McQueen video that used sound to disturbing, almost deafening effect. For Western Deep (2002), one of his first colour films, McQueen descended into the world’s deepest gold mine – the 3.9km-deep TauTona Mine, in Gauteng Province, South Africa – with a Super 8 camera, depicting the claustrophobic conditions in which workers extracted precious metals. For long stretches the screen is nearly or totally black, since McQueen filmed without additional light sources. But the soundtrack carries the film: the elevator rattles into the earth, whirring air conditioners cool down the hellish temperatures, pneumatic rock drills shudder across the mine walls. Just like in Hunger, here McQueen evoked the stifling pressures on confined bodies through sound as much as image.

Although McQueen’s work always exhibits a deep political consciousness, any actual political message is usually muted. His art can be powerfully, sometimes maddeningly evasive. Bear is an unsettling evocation of our stereotypes of black men, but its exact position is hard to pin down. Western Deep, though a documentary, looks only at the workers’ conditions in the mine and not (or at least not directly) at the history of apartheid or the globalised economics of gold. And in Queen and Country (2007), which McQueen called “the hardest thing I ever did”, he offered one of the most moving evocations of the war in Iraq without ever revealing his own feelings. McQueen was invited by London’s Imperial War Museum to embed with the British army in Basra, but stringent restrictions made it impossible for him to film anything. Instead, he proposed to make a series of postage stamps, each one featuring nothing but a photograph of a dead soldier. (McQueen wrote personally to the deceased service members’ families, who chose the images themselves.) Though the designs were received with universal acclaim when first presented, McQueen failed to convince the UK postal service to issue the stamps. The work will only be complete when the postage circulates, and death and remembrance enter directly into the lives of anyone who sends or receives a letter.

Recently his art was the subject of a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Schaulager in Basel. For Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 2015 Venice Biennale, it was “the most rewarding exhibition I have seen in a long time… Steve McQueen is already one of the greats.” The show would have been a major accomplishment on its own, but seen against the backdrop of 12 Years a Slave, it had a particular force. McQueen may have made one of the most important films ever about American slavery, but it did not come from nowhere; its genesis began in the white cubes and black boxes of British art galleries, and while 12 Years a Slave may be his most visible and international success, it shouldn’t overshadow his artistic career but amplify it. Enwezor understood that: “to comprehend his powerful and unsparing vision as a filmmaker,” he insisted, “one must begin with the roots of his practice as an artist.”

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